Cobras do not strike in sunlight, rattlers never rattle when they’re wet. That’s all you have to know about council officers. Fionnghan MacIain, the assistant curator fell into the second category. I should have slipped him a quart of Glen Fiddich, beforehand. “The trouble is,” he waffled, “we’ve not got the time, let alone the space. And, if I were to leave your work in our storeroom, gathering dust, until someone could look at it, there’s a risk it might get damaged. In which case, according to the manifest, we couldn’t afford the higher insurance premium.”
All gobbledygook. If the Mossback Gallery wanted to do something, they did it.
I suppose I’d better tell you who I am. Pat Bart is my name, though lately I’ve taken to calling myself Giselle Bartleby. I’ll keep you guessing why, for now. You could call this my autobiography. Legend has it I died when I finished it; turning up my toes as I finished the last page. There. Where it says copyright MMXV. And don’t you forget it. Pinch any of my scintillating prose and I’ll haunt you till your hair falls out onto the ground like horse shit — plop. Yellowbrown and steaming, falling on the floor in great, hot lumps. All right, that last bit about steaming lumps was exaggeration, poet’s license. Well I renewed my poet’s license this morning, for five of your Earth pounds. So fingers off, or I’ll bite them off, and spit them in your face like dumdum bullets.
I’d better paint a bit of a picture so you don’t go thinking I’m tall and svelte and comely. You’d like as not think me the opposite of those three. That’s why I don’t ‘do’ glamour, as a rule. But I did intend the peach-blossom silk choker to bring out the cerulean of my eyes. And that is my one concession to femininity. My gunmetal dungarees were bought for the occasion. My mahogany hair close-cropped to a sensual, finger-tickling velvet an hour before.
That’s enough about me for now. Back to Fionnghan MacIain. “So,” he continued, a purring wasp in his nest of paper, “if you could have them picked up again, ASAP, we’d appreciate it.”
Thinking of something else I’d like to pick up — and throw off the roof — I nonetheless managed the ghost of a smile. And even nodded in quasi agreement. They could all stay till I got George to pick them up in his four by four. He’s a little treasure, is George. He took my pics there in the first place. He was a bit openmouthed when he saw how many, but helped me heave them into his four by four. To be honest, he did most of the heaving — my back was playing me up. The porters hadn’t complained about carrying them to the lift. They lugged pictures about all day. And to the unlearned, one art treasure looks no different from another. It was this so-called ‘expert’ that was the buggeration factor.
“I’m not saying, don’t bring any more,” MacIain insisted, “just better if you bring them one at a time.”
Then he got snidey.
Cheek of it. They refused to show my work. Well, that’s their loss. But that snide remark was the limit. I mean, fancy saying they won’t show it because I don’t have a degree in fine arts. That’s just snobbery, of the intellectual kind. Can’t they recognise an authentic, self-taught genius when they’re looking at her? What’s that you say? Modesty? No place for modesty in this world. You’ve got to blow your own ophicleide, (a trumpet’s too small these days). And you’ve got to put your shoulder to it. Especially if you’re a woman. And double-top on life’s dartboard.
“I mean,” he said, taking hold of ‘The Horse Whisperer’ and turning it this way and that, “what’s it supposed to be?”
“That’s a horse,” I said. And it was: a real horse; with fetlocks and withers and mane. How could he not appreciate the beautiful, sweeping curve of the horse’s neck with the man’s arm following it round. Had he no soul?
I could see he was working himself up to say something uncomplimentary. It was time to go. He was not in the mood for anything that wasn’t Pre-Raphaelite, or neo-classical. No spirit of adventure, that’s him.
“And that sky,” he said. “What colour do you call that? Snotgreen?”
Time to leave the gallery, time to go home. I picked up ‘The Horse Whisperer’ (pearls among swine, it was) tucked it under my arm and made a dramatic sweep of an exit.
To cheer myself up, I descended on the students’ art show in the Hays Building next door. Most of our University was glass, steel and concrete. But the Hays was Gothic and inherited from the Freemasons who had moved to the suburbs ten years ago. I was homeless at the time they moved out, and I joined a squat in there for a short while. There was no lecky, and we used to tell ghost stories in the dark featuring the masons and their human sacrifices. Nowadays, the interior was much brighter for its trendy makeover. The weird Egyptian symbols were still there, though; chiseled into the stonework. They still cast spooky shadows on the floor when the sun shone through them.
I entered through the grandiose arch. But instead of going into the main gallery I turned right into the area reserved for the 2.2s — unofficially. Was it bound to be nasty? It was, indeed it was. A young man of impetigous appearance quite blended in with a metal table, splattered with dried paint. Close to, I saw it was also covered with rough-cast, unglazed porcelain Buddhas. The scabious young man lowered his Morning Star, stood up, and touched a button. The table began to vibrate. The pot Buddhas jigged around. One of them fell off the edge of the table and smashed to pieces on the floor. The young man smiled. Another two pot Buddhas fell off the edge and smashed. He switched off the motor and bowed from the waist like a Japanese. Was I supposed to comment? The young man went back to his ‘Morning Star’ and I walked off as my headache intensified. If that’s anything to go by, they can keep their degrees. Wankers, the lot of them. I will admit, a few of them have technique. But none of them have originality. You can have all the technique in the world, but if you’ve no originality you might as well try whistling down the wind. That’s the thing you can always say about a Giselle Bartleby painting. ‘Originality guaranteed’. Of course, sometimes it’s the dyslexia coming out that brings the originality. Like the times I get the hands and feet mixed up. But I always paint over those. If I spot them. Anyway, I’ve evolved a special technique to avoid that happening again. “Note the distinctive Bartleby sweep,” future critics will say. “The continuous line enclosing the figure.” A pity I didn’t think of that before. As long as I keep my charcoal on the canvas, I can ensure everything’s where it belongs. And the outcome’s picture-perfect. And effortless. Every time. More or less. Being blind in one eye doesn’t help, when you’re an artist. But being a bit deaf does, sometimes.
They know me too well, that’s their problem.
I used to be a life model in the Mossback Gallery. That bunch of tossers can never admit one of their own meat-loafers has talent. Apart, that is, from the usual, physical one of enduring the same position for a thirty-minute stretch.
It was for my debut as an artist I decided to try using a different name. ‘Giselle’ is from the ballet. Pat Bart just didn’t sound like anything. But when you are eighteen stone, it’s hard to be invisible. They still say, “Hello, Pat,” as soon as I walk through the canvas jungle, my paint box underneath my arm. I’ve tried to suppress ‘Pat’ ever since I heard someone referring to me as, ‘that Cow Pat’. Only jealousy, of course, but still not polite to call someone that.
Let’s see them make something of ‘Giselle’. Or Bartleby, if it comes to that.
Another reason I use ‘Giselle Bartleby’ is to stop the DSS finding out about my professional pittance — if ever it arrives. You see, most times we barter. Suzie at the health emporium balances my chakras in exchange for drawing lessons. Then there’s George, helps me do a moonlight flit with his van, every so often. I did his portrait the last time. He came off best because the painting cost £30 in materials alone. If I’d bought them new, that is. In real terms, it’s worth about £300. Maybe more. A real investment. I might buy it back, one day. He said I could take it, if I wanted. It worried him that it might get damaged in his own, forthcoming move. And anyway, he’d run out of wall space. But just taking it, without a payment, wouldn’t be fair on him. I’ll give him a fair price, when the time comes.
That awful snob MacIain doesn’t know what he’s looking at. “If you had an art degree,” the smug bastard said, “I would at least know that someone had put some value on your previous work.” So forty-five years of life experience doesn’t count? They’re all in it together, is what he really meant.
On my way out, I was pleased to see Rex Gallivant, on his way in. Rex was a history of art lecturer who used to have his own little gallery in the backroom of a remaindered-book shop. He was going to exhibit some of my paintings. Until the bookshop closed down, that is. “Hello, Rex,” I said. “I was hoping to bump into you.”
He frowned at me.
“Giselle,” I said.
“What about it?” he answered. He’s forgetful, as well as long-sighted.
“I’m Giselle,” I said. “Giselle Bartleby.”
Still no response.
“Oh yes,” he said, with a smile, of sorts. “How’s the modelling going?”
“It’s not,” I said. “I haven’t modelled in months. I’ve become a professional painter.”
“Ah, right,” he said. “How’s that going? Have you got a full order book? Of course, you’ll need your own van and ladders…”
“Not a house painter,” I said, holding up ‘The Horse Whisperer’. “I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve launched myself on a new career as an artist.”
“Have you really?” he said, squinting at me through an invisible lorgnette.
“Yes. I’ve already sold one painting.”
“Have you really?” he said, again. I could tell he had something else on his mind.
“Tell you what,” I said, linking my left arm with his right and butterflying my lashes like a bad un. “I saw a vacant shop on Cathedral Mount — the old secondhand food shop. You know? ‘S & M Foods’. And naturally, I thought of you.”
“Naturally,” he said, distracted by a pigeon or something, over my right shoulder. Men should not try to multitask.
“I checked, and it’s dirt cheap rent. Because of the hill, I expect.”
That pigeon must have been doing something pretty acrobatic, because he couldn’t take his eyes off it. He reached into his pocket, excavated a silver snuff box from his hip pocket and transferred a pinch to his hairy nostrils. This action meant he had to unlink his arm from mine and it would have been too cheeky to grab onto his again.
“You know,” I said, bringing my voice down to Thatcherine depths, “you could afford to rent it, and start a new art gallery. ‘The Gallivant Gallery’. It has a terrific ring to it.”
“Yes,” he said. That was a good sign. “I suppose I could.”
So I pressed on. “And if you did, I could have a studio in the backroom.”
“Yes, I suppose you could,” he said.
“And, I could teach people to paint, to contribute to the rent.”
“Yes, I suppose you could,” he said. If Rex had his own TV show it would be called, ‘I suppose You Could’.
“And sell my paintings, of course,” I said, more to fill the silence than anything.
“Of course,” he said.
“And we’d both be quids in,” I said, with what I hoped was an encouraging wink.
“Yes, I suppose we could be,” he said. He looked at his watch, a gold Rolex. I could tell it was genuine because the second hand didn’t jerk as it swept round the dial. “If you don’t mind,” he added, “I’m a little pushed for time. In fact, I must dash. I’ve got a train to catch.”
“So, do we go ahead?” I asked.
“We could do,” he said, backing away.
“And store all my paintings at your place until…?”
But he had already swept off into the crowd.
He didn’t jerk around either.
It being Saturday, I decided on a walk home by the river. It’s a wondrous varied route. It winds its way through sparkling woods and grey old factories, ending up by an industrial museum that combines the two. A decrepit, brick and stone-built edifice wherein an ancient water turbine is preserved. Here the fluvial force powers an old drop hammer and various other Victorian appliances of science. The trouble was the trickling water was soon calling to my bladder. So I made haste for the horrible little public lavatory tucked away behind what was laughably called the café. And on my exit, I bumped into George Meek, ambulance driver of this parish. “Hello George,” I said. “You off somewhere?”
“Erm, not really. It’s my day off. Just had coffee here and now I’m going home.” Peculiar, that. I’d swear he had the distinct look of someone just arriving.
“Ah, good,” I said. “I’ll come with you. Got a job for you, George.”
“A job? What do you…?”
“Driving job. Taking my paintings up to Rex Gallivant’s place. I’ll explain on the way.” I decided to advance the right arm this time. It stayed put. Less intimidating, perhaps? Must stick to the right in future, when linking arms with men — and talking business.
“Any payment for this…?”
“Oh, same basis as before. Payment in kind.”
“You see, I don’t really want another painting,” he said. “I mean, it was good, sort of. But I just don’t want another portrait cluttering up the place.”
“I’ll do you a landscape this time. I’m good at landscapes. It will be like having another window. Open the room up.”
“Ah, I see,” he growled. He unlinked his arm and thrust his hands deep into his pockets so that his arms made twin exclamation points. “I don’t know when I could.” He went on, quieter now. “Honestly, Pat, your ‘jobs’ tend to turn into ‘mini adventures’. Like that time we ended up pretending to be Arab diplomats at that trade delegation…”
“This one won’t,” I said, cutting him short. “I’ve already talked to Rex about it. It’s quite straightforward.”
“Yes, well,” he went on, “I don’t know when I could…”
“We’d best do it now,” I said. “Before Rex has a chance to change his mind. Just joking. He’s really enthusiastic for us to go into business together. I want to show him how keen I am, by taking my paintings over there straight away.”
“Not anybody else’s, then?”
“Who else’s could I take?”
“Are your paintings actually worth something?” he said. “I ask purely for information. I mean, no offence. Most people’s aren’t.”
“Mine are.” I played my trump. “The Mossback Gallery think they are. I left some with them, to be appraised. They said the prices I put on them were too low. They told me to increase them tenfold.”
“What? Frank Raphael said that?”
“Not Frank Raphael,” I said. “One of his minions. I had to fill in a form. There were boxes for the titles and value. I thought I’d price them low. You know, enough to cover the cost of materials, plus twenty percent. But he said, ‘You need to increase your prices. Put a nought on the end.’”
George reflected. “Ah, for insurance purposes,” he said. That pigeon had come back and was bothering him, now.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s what made me realise that I was undervaluing my talent. And, that I could make a living from painting.”
“So is the Mossback exhibiting your paintings?”
“Probably; I’m waiting to hear,” I said. “But I’m really talking about the ones I’ve got at home. Come on. Help me carry them downstairs and up to Rex’s and I’ll cook you supper.”
His brow furrowed as he said, “But he may not be in. Have you thought of that? All that way for nothing.”
That was a point. Rex had said he needed to catch a train. Always going somewhere, Rex. Every time I met him. Envied him, in a way. Big family and always in demand. Suppose you’d call that charisma. But if you’re not born with it, you have to work at it. That’s harder for a woman, in the current climate. “It’ll be all right, George,” I said. “He’s got a big garage, and he never leaves it locked. We can leave the paintings in there. I’ll sleep on the garage floor till he comes back and lets me use his sofa. Don’t worry about me. I’ve done it before.”
And I’ll do it again.
“Look, I haven’t enough room in my car…”
“That’s all right. We can always make two journeys.”
We made three.